In the ongoing nightmare that is the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found myself meditating on a more consistent basis to abate the negative emotions which today’s circumstances have engendered. Pre-pandemic, meditation and I enjoyed an on-again/off-again relationship: I would practice it for a few days or weeks before losing motivation due to stressors in my life that I allowed to take precedence, before being so overwhelmed that I found myself crawling back to meditation, reigniting the vicious cycle. When I did practice it, however, I always emerged feeling revitalized and ready to take on the world of science. I felt like the calm before the storm, only without a storm to worry about. Now, with some external stressors removed by lockdowns, I find it harder to make excuses to shirk this soothing practice, which led me to muse the science behind the benefits it provides. Is it merely a placebo effect or something more in the brain?
Over the last few decades, a plethora of research has been conducted on this question, with the unanimous consensus in favor of the latter. To appreciate the neurological effects of meditation, we first need to understand the concept of neurogenesis. For a long time, scientists believed that everyone entered this world with a fixed amount of brain cells that gradually died out as we aged. However, a 1998 study in Nature Medicine overthrew this notion, showing that the adult brain can grow new cells, a process called neurogenesis. Neurogenesis occurs predominantly in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays a fundamental role in learning and memory. This region is hypothesized to be the reason why we remember very little from our infancy, when the brain is still developing. The growth of new brain cells occurs in a section of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, which harbors adult stem cells. Under the right environment, these stem cells can expand and transform into the mature neurons in our brains, providing a renewable resource of cells. The rate of neurogenesis varies with our lifestyles. Meditation can accelerate this process by optimizing the levels of seven key neurochemicals in the brain: elevated serotonin, which improves our mood; reduced cortisol, a stress-induced hormone that accelerates aging; increased GABA, a calming neurotransmitter that mitigates anxiety; increased DHEA, which lengthens our lifespan; increased growth hormone, which stabilizes our bones and muscles, combating aging; and increased melatonin, which promotes restful sleep and is antagonized by excess light (like scrolling through social media on your phone before going to bed). Together, this provides the perfect fertilizer for maximal neurogenesis.
The neurogenesis-boosting properties of meditation make it a powerful force against depression and anxiety, particularly mindfulness meditation, a popular form of meditation which focuses on bringing attention to the present moment while suspending judgment and resistance. Depression suffers from a lot of stigma in our society and many others, with some people perceiving it as made up or “all in your head,” as it cannot be as easily detected as a physical injury such as a broken leg. However, depression can be physically characterized by the degradation of certain regions in the brain, including the hippocampus. This explains many of the symptoms of depression, such as confusion and impaired memory, all of which stem predominantly from the hippocampus. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found the ability of mindfulness meditation to treat depression and anxiety rivals that of antidepressants, which often target the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus to stimulate neurogenesis. A 2012 study at Harvard characterized the effects of mindfulness meditation in patients using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI enables scientists to “take pictures” of the brain, while also recording changes in brain activity. The results indicated a significant change in brain activity in participants who learned to meditate, specifically in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with emotional responses and decision making. A previous study also demonstrated that meditation increases cortical thickness in the hippocampus; the same group later showed that meditation could also improve overall well-being.
Studies have also demonstrated that meditation can even curtail implicit bias. As Americans have been reminded once more, systemic racism has been a persistent scourge on this nation for centuries, with African-Americans more likely to be targeted by police, be overlooked in hiring decisions, and face many more injustices. This culture of both overt and subtle racism engenders implicit biases in people, even if they may openly condemn discrimination. A 2014 study focused on the effects of implicit bias in age and racial discrimination in a cohort of 72 white college students. The control group listened to a 10-minute history recording, while the mindful group listened to a 10-minute mindfulness exercise. Both groups then completed race and age implicit association tests (IAT) to measure bias by recording response times in associating positive or negative phrases with black or white faces, and likewise for old or young faces. They found that the mindful group displayed less implicit racial and age bias than the control group, corroborating previous findings that mindfulness severs ties to previously held associations. The researchers further found that the mindful group was not as prone to differentiate between faces, and thus not automatically categorize people into age or racial groups. Because meditation has been shown to curb activity in the amygdala, and thus, mitigate our emotional response, this makes sense as it reframes our decision-making paradigms and how we respond to stimuli.
In today’s world, with feelings of anxiety, fear, and mistrust reaching a fever pitch, it is easy to get caught up in these destructive emotions and unknowingly surrender to the biases – implicit or explicit – that they fuel. However, given the growing collection of research and extensive history of the practice, meditation has proven itself to be an effective tool in ameliorating these negative feelings while improving your well-being. While the idea of starting meditation may be intimidating, it doesn’t have to be. Try starting incrementally – try it for one minute a day for a week, then bump it up to 5 minutes, 10 minutes, etc., gradually increasing the time spent as you become more comfortable with the practice and it becomes part of your daily routine. I like to relate meditation to tending the garden in my mind, pulling up the weeds and watering the flowers, allowing my whole body to reap the fruits of my labor. This time, I hope to stick with my daily meditation, even after the pandemic, and hope that others may find solace in this invigorating routine.
Peer edited by Isabel Newsome and Rita Meganck